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"Make Believe" is what our world has come to, according to the intelligent voice of Barry Levinson.
One criticism of an external review was that POLIWOOD is meandering; indeed, there is no neat beginning, middle and end. But that's all right, as we are partaking in what Levinson has cleverly termed a "film essay," and strict organization is not essential, as long as the bits and pieces offer substantive value, adding up to a thought-provoking whole. Another complained that there is nothing, really, that we haven't heard before. Yet what is more important is whether the points being made are substantial, and whether they deserve to be made again, to a complacent and largely unaware public.
In other words, we basically are all aware that we are living in a relatively phony world, where extremist fringe groups dominate politics, with the money/zeal to effectively manipulate the public. The movie helps us to infer that perhaps we are living at a time when these forces have become more powerful than ever before. Of course, life is going to go on, we are all too weak or busy to do anything about the way we're led on a leash, but it is of extreme importance to be reminded of this truth.
Levinson tells us of a 1959 TV Guide article written by John F. Kennedy that spoke of the truths we know so well today, regarding, basically, the powerful hold of the televised media. We are reminded, for example, that the photogenic Kennedy won his TV debate with Nixon, while Nixon won with the non-visual radio medium. The GOP recognized the attractive telegenic qualities of Ronald Reagan, when Reagan gave a speech during Goldwater's 1964 presidential bid, and soon after, it was probably no coincidence that Reagan was elected as governor of California, paving the way to a political journey destined to reach the top. The message: the competence and talent of the candidate began to take second place to the person's superficial qualities. We are told that physically and sometimes personality-challenged past leaders, such as Presidents John Adams, Taft and FDR, very likely could not have survived in today's political climate, where (my example) an Arnold Schwarzenegger can get elected for all the wrong reasons.
One of the more thought-provoking facts pointed out was that television stations were once required by the FCC to provide public service programming, in exchange for the privilege of controlling valuable public airwaves and the opportunity to turn great profit. This was back in the days when the news meant something, a "public service," and a credible fourth wall that kept the corruption of government in check. With the help of deregulation, where giant conglomerates have gobbled up diverse news sources (resulting in mainstream media colluding with the controlling corporate world), we know we live in far different times now, very detrimental to our democratic process, where the bottom line has taken on critical importance, and the necessity to profit has taken precedence over the fact-supplying duty of journalism. Thus, the line between news and entertainment has blurred, irrelevant celebrities appear regularly on news shows, and in order to generate greater profit, news shows focus on conflict (e.g., liberal vs. conservative spokespeople in debates), thus adding to the impossibly polarized and often uncivilized status we are seeing today.
The role of celebrities in news-making is also explored, something I found of interest, because we all share, to some extent, a general contempt for, say, a not-necessarily-very-intellectual actor, who pretends to carry political influence largely on the basis of fame. In fact, we see the anger of the average citizen, when paired off with celebrities in the film's finale. POLIWOOD does not openly endorse the role of the celebrity, but recognizes the inevitable role that celebrity now carries in the political process. I enjoyed seeing celebrities in a behind-the-scenes sort of way, acting like everyday people, sometimes making sense, sometimes not.
What I liked about the film was that even though the participants largely represented the Hollywood left (which is my assumption, given the presence of obvious candidates such as Susan Sarandon; yet there were other famous faces, such as Robert Davi, whose political orientation isn't familiar. They belong to a group called the Creative Coalition, which stresses that they are a "non-partisan" organization), the point of the film is not to take sides, but to reinforce what has become the disturbing and unreal "reality show" aspect of our political times. This is a concept that everyone should be concerned about, regardless of political leanings. In fact, what the film is warning against is how the media has become so much more effective in manipulating minds -- that is, the kind of mentality expressed by a fellow POLIWOOD commentator, "Styopa," in his lash-out essay entitled "Self-justification hits the big screen" (offering the first comment here; I am the fourth), where Styopa gives the impression of being so conditioned by the media of the right, he immediately sees POLIWOOD as liberal propaganda. It's rather ironic, because the entire point of the film is the sad and harmful state that we have evolved into as a society, and not an endorsement for any political view.
In fact, a profound moment of the film was one exposing liberal hypocrisy. The late actor, Ron Silver, identified as the founder of the Creative Coalition, opined that too many liberals have become alarmingly intolerant, with some closing the book on further discussion, announcing that their minds have been made up, and that nothing can dissuade them. Therein lies the damaging societal gridlock, and only by examining what irresponsible forces have shaped us to such extremes can we hope to return to constructiveness and normalcy. This may be an unrealistic hope, as the controlling forces have become too powerful, but if we are not aware of these forces, choosing instead to mindlessly surrender to whatever we are being spoon-fed, then the situation will become truly impossible.
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